Friday, June 19, 2009


'Tis plum season and time for umeshū again, the sweet, savoury Japanese plum liquor. It's getting more and more popular in summer - sales are twice what they were ten years ago - and for good reason. It goes well chilled or on ice, and even better with a drop of lemon juice or mixed with apple cider (my favourite). Best of all, it's really easy and cheap1 to make your own.


Ume, Japanese plums. These are sour and hard and nothing you'd want eat. Great for making a drink from.

There's nothing to it: put some sour plums in a large jar together with rock sugar and "white liquor" - flavourless alcohol, usually about 30-35%. Recipes typically call for around 1kg plums, 2l alcohol and 400-600g sugar. Wait six months2 to a year, then drink. The plums themselves become soft and really savoury and make an excellent jam if you wait no longer than a year to take them out. If you start a jar now, you'll have your first taste right around New Year.

Umeshū, Ingredients

All you need: ume, rock sugar, some inexpensive alcohol (the good stuff is wasted on this) and a jar for it all. Mix. Wait. Drink.

Last year we made vodka-based and rum-based umeshū, just to see what'd it be like. A year later we can say that they're both good, though a little tart for our taste; we ended up adding a bit of sugar to them over the winter. We used the cheapest white rum we could find, and that may have been a mistake, as the rum flavours have almost disappeared. A dark rum may be more interesting.

Brandy Umeshū
Brandy Umeshū

So this year we're doing another experiment, and making a brandy-based version. Our recipe is very simple: 1kg green plums, 400g sugar and two bottles of cheap brandy. Unlike umeboshi that needs high-quality fruit, you can use tart, damaged and scarred plums for this. No need to waste money on the expensive stuff.

Clean the plums (wash them and remove the stem ends with a toothpick). Spend an hour taking a picture of all the ingredients while your wife patiently waits. Put them in a jar with the sugar and pour over the alcohol. Spend another two hours trying to take a decent shot of the jar without having it look too much like a specimen in a disreputable medical museum. put the jar in the closet for the next six months and call it a day. See, not difficult at all.

Ps. This is my entry to this month's Blog Matsuri and the theme is living on a budget in Japan3. ds.

#1 OK, so cardboard-box umeshū is a bit cheaper, but that's not even made with whole plums, and we do get a whole jar of ume jam out of this too. If you compare with good-quality stuff, you do save some money making it yourself. If you have a local source of plums, or your own tree, it's really no contest. Besides, cheaper or not, making it yourself is more fun!

#2 It's drinkable after three months, but it really needs at least half a year to develop the flavour.

#3 Not budgety enough? Here's an easy tip: Don't shop. The shopping culture here is hysterical; there's a ridiculous amount of shops around. Half the country states shopping is their main hobby. This is frankly one of the less attractive aspects of this place - on beautiful, temperate spring weekends you'll find the beaches and riverbanks half deserted but the malls crammed with crowds.

If you want to save, don't get sucked in. You don't need those clothes or that eggtimer or DVD player or a box of Pocky or a new phone or a new strap for the phone or cleaning liquid for the strap or a sailor outfit for your dog or a designer bag in which to carry it all; you want it. There's a difference. Buy what you need, not what you want4 and you'll be surprised how much money you save.


  1. Wow, great photos! Thanks for sharing. Hey, these Hawaii Statehood Apparel might interest some of your friends too.

  2. That would be so fun! Definitely going to do it once I'm back in the states.

  3. For point #3, you just got yourself on my blogroll. Non-consumer culture needs to be rewarded!

    I'm glad you added in point #1 too, as I tried making umeshu and last year and currently enjoying the product, but I certainly wouldn't say it is cheaper - however, you get much better VALUE for what you pay; and a big part of it was the making - we got 4 or 5 of us together and made about 50 litres in total of various umeshuu's (black sugar, brandy, honey...)

  4. James, do note #4 before you pat my back too much for resisting the lure of consumerism ^_^

    Yes, if all you want is a cheap, sweet drink then it's as cheap to buy as to make. If you want any kind of quality, then making it yourself is cheaper and much more fun.

    BTW, we're making umeboshi too, which really is quite a bit cheaper to make no matter what, and I just put up a post about the first steps:

  5. Question! once the ume has been sitting in the umeshu for say 3-4 months can you take the ume out and make jam from them? or just some of the ume?

  6. Yes, you can. Though 3-4 months is rather short; I would wait at least six months before taking it out. Many umeshu jam recipes assume you've let them be for six months to a year.

    We made jam from some one-year old ume last year and it turned out pretty good. We're not going to do that this year though, as we've realized the umeshu taste keeps improving for years if you keep the fruit. We'd rather have tastier uneshu than a bit of jam :)


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